Wireless Communications Update: 5G In the Time of Social Distancing

Added: Over a year ago by NI

Today I am working from home. Like anyone else who is lucky to do so, I’m staying connected to my coworkers through chat apps and virtual meetings, and keeping my work moving forward via file-sharing programmes. With me (and everyone else) sequestered to their homes because of COVID-19 (coronavirus), the current 4G Wi-Fi network is experiencing a surge in demand — and it’s struggling to keep up. While the promise of 5G – lower latency, and higher reliability and data rates – was just around the corner, wide-scale adoption has also been put on hold – at least for now.

The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), which unites telecommunications standard development organisations, had to cancel plenary meetings and working group sessions scheduled for May. The March and June plenary meetings, which were focused on Release-16 completion, have been rescheduled as virtual events to keep work on the standards moving forward.

The 3GPP announced a 3 month delay in its Release 16 schedule, which includes 5G efficiency updates and standards for 5G in the Industrial IoT. And with a delay for Release 16, there will also be a three-month delay to the Release 17 timeline, so we won’t see some 5G upgrades until Dec 2021. Release 17 is slated to be perhaps the most versatile in 3GPP history and will include advancements like 5G applications in industrial and logistics environments. This means a postponed rollout of 5G in warehouses, shipping ports, and factory floors where it will eventually make operations more efficient, ensure better safety for employees, and change the way that products are delivered.

The impact of COVID-19 to the rest of the 5G ecosystem remains to be seen. Huawei, the Chinese Telecom company leading the 5G evolution, is planning to lower its 2020 financial targets as a result of the pandemic. According to the BBC, Huawei will experience some delays in its 5G deployments in Europe, particularly in the UK, where it supplies almost a third of the 5G infrastructure. For consumers, Apple is considering delaying its first 5G iPhone due to supply chain and product development disruption. While everything is changing day-by-day, we can expect a delay in network and device modernisation around the globe.

It’s not all bad news for the wireless community, though. While the surge of data traffic has highlighted shortcomings in the existing networks’ resiliency, we’ve also seen inspirational demonstrations of 5G technology at work during the outbreak. In China, for example, where 5G is a top strategic priority for the government, cameras connected to a 5G network are scanning body temperatures at a market in Suzhou and 5G-connected robots are taking temperatures in hospitals to help limit person-to-person contact for medical staff.

The demand for 5G is still strong — in fact, NTT Docomo launched the first 5G mobile network in Japan on March 25, 2020. Additionally, extending the 3GPP’s Release 17 timeline may prove beneficial. Release 15 over-committed to an ambitious list of features that led to a lot of technical debt. Working on Releases 17 for a few extra months may ultimately result in more complete or stabilised features.

This crisis has proven the need for more advanced technology in our homes, businesses, and hospitals, as well as more automation in factories and production outlets. In a post-COVID-19 world, we can expect to see even higher demand for digitalisation from both consumers and businesses who will benefit from 5G adoption.

While roadblocks remain to the mass deployment of 5G, we’re making steady progress. At a time like this, that is something worth recognising.

Sarah Yost
Senior Product Marketing Manager

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